Where tires go to die
Where tires go to die: A few years back, the village of Mit El Haroun in Gharbia drew attention among international journalists (see reports: here, here and here) for being a hub for tire recycling in the Delta region. Workers receive used tires from across the country and recycle them, fashioning the material into new items or shredding it for use in a number of industrial processes. It’s a rudimentary waste management system by international standards, but it’s a waste management system nonetheless.
Tires are a major global waste problem that poses threats to both the environment and public health in countries that lack efficient recycling systems and regulators with the muscle to clamp down on harmful disposal. The use of synthetic rubber makes them non-biodegradable and the cocktail of toxic chemicals added to improve durability are an ecological hazard, leaking into the soil at landfill sites and spewing into the air when burned. It is estimated that the world produces some 1 bn waste tires every single year, which not only pollute the land, but according to one study are responsible for up to 30% of all microplastics found at sea.
Only a small percentage are recycled, with one study claiming that just 100 mn end up being reused for other purposes. The vast majority end up being dumped: one piece of research estimated that around 75% of waste tires are thrown in landfills.
Recycling tires isn’t always good for the environment: Tires can be burned to produce low-grade fuel and be used in asphalt via a process known as pyrolysis. This is fine when done by companies possessing the technology to prevent waste and emissions, and in countries with strong environmental regulations. But in developing countries such as Malaysia and India, which has risen to become the world’s largest importer of waste tires, the consequences for the environment and local communities can be deadly.
Egypt has chosen not to emulate the Indian model of becoming one of the world’s dumping grounds for used tires. UN customs data show that the country has imported little to no used tires in recent years after the government classified them as hazardous waste, forbidding importers from bringing them into the country.
And that’s just as well: Like other developing countries Egypt lacks a formal system for collecting and disposing of used tires, and relies on a network of informal tire dealers, small-scale workshops, and a few private factories that have historically clustered in Mit El Haroun but are now located throughout Cairo and Alexandria as well. The unlicensed workshops operating within this informal system lack regulatory oversight to ensure that they’re complying with environmental standards, presenting a major hurdle to the safe disposal of tires, Yasser Mahgoub, vice president of the Environment Ministry’s Waste Management Regulatory Authority, told us.
There are no official statistics on how many waste tires Egypt produces each year or how they are disposed of, leaving researchers to make use of other datasets to gauge the situation on the ground. A 2016 study (pdf) by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) used Capmas data of the number of licensed vehicles in Egypt to estimate that the country would produce 6.9 mn waste tires — equivalent to around 316k tons — in 2015. That figure was projected at the time to continue growing by some 10% every year to keep pace with rising car ownership, putting annual waste volumes on course to rise to some 616k tons, or 13.4 mn tires, by 2022.
This leads to wildly different estimates: A 2015 report (pdf) produced by the Environment Ministry’s National Solid Waste Programme (NSWP) and German development agency GIZ suggested that the country produced 218k tons in 2014, and projected an annual growth rate of 3-5%, putting us on track to consume at least 260k tons by the end of 2021.
Some industry insiders, however, think that figure is higher: A representative at a leading tire manufacturer in Egypt told Enterprise that the total number of waste tires produced each year is likely closer to 20 mn.
There’s also little agreement over how much is recycled: Some estimates claim that only 10% of our used tire supply is recycled or repurposed in some form, while others say that figure is closer to 50%, of which 28% is burned for fuel, 11% re-used or recycled and 5% set ablaze in open-air settings. This estimate is supported by the NSWP report which indicates that almost half of the 218k tons produced in 2014 go through some industrial process, including around 90k tons which were used to produce new rubber goods.
A large bulk of the country’s tire waste comes from tire and auto repair shops, which have agreements with garbage collectors who take scrap tires every month, and sell them to individuals and companies. The IFC estimates that around 22% of all scrap tires produced annually come from tire shops. These middlemen can collect 10k-50k tires every month from tire shops, according to one distributor we spoke to who supplies two factories near Madinet El Salam.
The government is also a major player: Egyptian ministries sell significant amounts of tires in annual auctions and via direct sales to companies, according to the IFC.
A portion of these tires are retreaded and sold on the secondary market at a discount and those that are beyond repair end up at factories and workshops, which partially burn them to salvage the steel wires. The rubber is then either fashioned into new products or shredded into small chips to be sold wholesale or made into new products on-site.
It’s not just the informal sector that’s involved: Manufacturers like Marso Rubber shred their own tires and incorporate these chips into the production of car mats, anti-slip mats for swimming pools, tennis courts, tracks and artificial turf. Samuel Moufid, one of the partners at the firm, told us that his facilities process some 100k tires each year.
A portion is shipped overseas: Egypt exported 2.6 mn kg of waste tires in 2020, and the year before shipped 4.5 mn kg, according to UN data.
There’s also demand from the local cement industry: According to the NSWP report, in 2014 some 19k tons of waste tires went to producing tire-derived fuel (TDF) for cement companies, which is used as an alternative to traditional fuels such as coal or natural gas. Whole and shredded tires are burned in cement kilns, providing a cheaper energy source that is high in caloric value and reduces reliance on fossil fuels, though one that produces similar emissions. Suez Cement CEO Jose Maria Magrina told us that the company currently burns around 2k tons per year. The company would likely use more if it was more widely available as it is of good quality and diverts tires from ending up in landfill, he said. Cemex’s Egypt unit comprises some 2% of the company’s overall fuel usage, the company’s communications chief, Zeinab Hegazy, said.
Cement firms need to apply for a license to use TDF: Companies need to tell the government how much they will use and the volumes of emissions, in the same way they would for any other fuel such as petcoke, Magrina said.
Formalizing entities working in the sector is paramount to overcoming these environmental challenges, according to Mahgoub, who told us that private sector tire manufacturers need to be better integrated into the recycling process.
This dynamic is reflective of the broader waste management woes the country is currently trying to overcome through last year’s new Waste Management Act, which seeks to formalize waste management through a more comprehensive national system. While there is certainly a case to be made for introducing better practices to the industry and gaining a better overview of just how much waste Egypt needs to deal with, it still remains unclear how small-scale workshops will be absorbed into the new national framework. For now, it seems like there are still more than enough tires to go around.
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